A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

‘… drawn by the Grateful Dead’

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Jan. 30, 31 or Feb. 1

After Sunday’s mostly overwrought and almost unlistenable Grammy Awards TV show, it’s refreshing to return to the Grateful Dead.

It’s 50 years since an early incarnation of what became the Dead – Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, with Jerry Garcia, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Bob Weir – started playing in Bay Area coffeehouses and bars, and though it’s never been necessary to “revive” interest in the band, recent releases remind us how great they were and their music remains.

Singer-songwriter Robert Hunter had worked with Garcia and Pigpen, as had drummer Bill Kreutzmann, and they welcomed bassist Phil Lesh into the fold in 1965 and second drummer Mickey Hart in ’67. After their debut LP came out that year, they were typecast as a studio group that couldn’t duplicate their songs live, but eventually their unique fusion of folk and blues became a stage staple, with energetic, meandering jams using traditional and experimental sounds.

Too often tied just to 1967’s Summer of Love, hippies and drugs, the Dead were socially aware, too, performing benefits for the legalization of pot, for the anti-war Moratorium and the Black Panthers. They somehow combined their noncommercial tendencies with business savvy, inviting fans – Deadheads – to tape their concerts despite the potential loss of record sales, yet launching their own record label and becoming one of the first U.S. pop acts to partly control concert ticketing.

Now, their music is showcased in new ways, such as “Move Me Brightly,” a DVD of generations jamming, featuring Weir and Hart, Kreutzmann, Lesh, singer Donna Jean Godcheaux and 19 musician collaborators, including John Doe (X, The Knitters), Perry Farrell (Jane’s Addiction), Mike Gordon (Phish), David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), Josh Kaufman and Sam Cohen (Yellowbirds), Tad Kubler and Craig Finn (Hold Steady), singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, Adam McDougall (Black Crowes), and Mike Campbell (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Dirty Knobs).

The occasion for the musical tribute was to mark what would’ve been the 70th birthday for Garcia, who died in 1995. Culled from a five-hour webcast, the 189-minute video has 13 songs that make up a sort of conversational jam, blending improvisation and well-rehearsed structure in which differences fade and commonalities emerge, like blooming flowers, fragrant, vivid and one dazzling splash.

It’s also a documentary, hosted by actor Luke Wilson, with insightful comments about Garcia from the likes of Carlos Santana and Sammy Hagar, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady that underscore the common denominator: Garcia’s music and the Grateful Dead’s influence.

Meanwhile, there are several other fresh items, including the double-LP vinyl package “Family Dog at the Great Highway – San Francisco, CA 4/18/1970,” a re-discovered 17-song acoustic set released just before Christmas. The 80-minute album features “I Know You Rider,” “A Friend of the Devil,” “Cumberland Blues,” “New Speedway Boogie,” and a rare six-song mini-set by GD resident bluesman Pigpen. (It’s also available as a CD from

Elsewhere, Round Records released “Fall 1989: The Long Island Sound,” a six-CD box with five-plus hours of music from two complete shows from Hartford, Ct., and Uniondale, N.Y., with the spinoff Jerry Garcia Band plus Weir’s duo venture with Rob Wasserman.

Also, the re-launched, designed by digital company Critical Mass, is starting to roll out15,000 recordings from 3,450 shows starring dozens of Garcia’s various bands, plus Rhino Records arranged “Complete Road Trips,” a huge release (388 cuts) retailing as a bundle for $249.99 from iTunes and MP3 from, etc. (or as single songs), and Rolling Stone magazine’s 100-page 2013 paperback “Grateful Dead: The Ultimate Guide,” with an introduction by Weir and 11 compelling features, from history of the band and “The Wisdom of Jerry” to reporting by Charles Young and “psychedelic statistics” on the group.

Coming in May: a live Jerry Garcia Celebration with the Boston Pops orchestra at Symphony Hall.

As written millennia ago in the ancient “Egyptian Book of the Dead,” “In the land of the night, the ship of the sun is drawn by the grateful dead.”

And as it’s been sung for decades, “Lord he’s gone, he’s gone./ Like a steam locomotive, rollin’ down the track,/ he’s gone, gone, nothin’s gonna bring him back....”

But all this comes close.

[PICTURED: Cartoon © 2013 Harry Bliss. See]

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